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The UN, Climategate and the Viral Web's Hot Air

By Renay San Miguel
Dec 4, 2009 11:58 AM PT

The United Nations has jumped into the controversy involving leaked emails on climate change data from the University of East Anglia, with a senior UN official saying Friday that his agency would investigate the matter.

The UN, Climategate and the Viral Web's Hot Air

The news may prompt a new series of blog posts, tweets and emails from climate change skeptics, who have used the scandal -- and the Web -- in recent days to advance claims of a conspiracy against their views among the media and scientific community. Scientists, in turn, may have to take some supplemental courses in communications in an Internet-centric world.

The issue is serious enough to warrant an investigation, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told BBC Radio. The UN probe now joins an internal university investigation into whether any climate data that didn't support man-made changes in the environment was manipulated or hidden from public view.

Some researchers maintain that the controversy does not change the science, with Britain's climate change secretary Ed Miliband accusing climate change skeptics -- "flat earth-ers," as he calls them -- of blowing up the issue for their own ends. A chain of emails that may have been taken out of context doesn't wipe out other global scientific data, according to Miliband.

The Science of the Viral Web

Links to columns from climate change skeptics about the East Anglia controversy were placed high on the popular conservative Drudge Report's home page for the past week. In turn, right-wing radio hosts seized on the issue during their shows, and sent listeners to their related Web sites for more information and links. Mainstream media has added its voice to the story; even "The Daily Show" has weighed in with a segment.

All of this has seeded more partisan discussion and anger -- much like the weather patterns that generate clouds and rain. Scientific explanations and context aren't nearly as prevalent on the Web regarding the controversy as the agenda-driven items, says Beth Parke, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

"I would go back to the concepts of what is a polemicist, what is their job," Parke told TechNewsWorld. "A polemicist is approaching it very different from a journalist, and so people get good at what they're trying to do. I think [partisans] are getting very good at what they do, but it doesn't necessarily inform us as a society."

There are tightropes to walk on this particular story, and Parke admitted to walking one herself. SEJ is a non-partisan, non-profit group dedicated to quality environmental reporting in all media. It accepts no gifts or money from non-media organizations, governments or environmental advocates. SEJ does not want to be seen as taking a side on the East Anglia story, but Parke does have thoughts about the Web's impact on science reporting overall, and whether scientists are using the Web as effectively as others.

Remedial Courses in Communications

"I think the Internet gives all stories that have a gossip factor extra legs," Parke said. "As journalists, we're always trying to get at accuracy in stories, and when you look at the Internet, it's the modern version of 'around the barn and across the fence.' The whole question of looking at who's saying what, and maybe why -- that's a skill that people need to develop as much or more in the Internet era. It's a media literacy issue."

As an example, Parke cited the work of Chris Mooney, a visiting associate at Princeton University and the author of three books including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America. "He makes good points about this question of science accuracy and then the question of scientist as blogger or journalist," Parke said. "There's an interesting trend among professional scientists to take on communications as one of the things they actually teach. It's a bit of a change in their culture."

Others in the scientific community, such as Dr. Jane Lubchenko with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, have urged media training for researchers as a way to promote scientific accuracy in a 24/7 media universe, Parke said.

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